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Dr. Jeannette Denton
Associate Professor of English
"I have always been intrigued by sounds of things," Dr. Jeannette Denton says. She has turned that interest into a career as a researcher and professor of linguistics at Baylor, even if the road she took to get there seems a little unorthodox.
"I didn't do any linguistics in college," she says. "I didn't know what it was, but I studied languages and music." As a vocal music major in college, Denton was fascinated by how music is put together. "I'm a very analytical person," she says, "and I tend to like to take things apart and see how they fit together again." Denton was also interested in what she calls "vestiges of things past," something she wasn't sure she could do anything with. "Occasionally when I was reading German poetry I would come across an outdated form, and the professor would say something like ‘that's the old dative "e" ending that we don't use anymore,' and I'd think, wow, a trace of something past buried in the language; that's cool!"
Denton knew she wanted to study language for its own sake, and not necessarily for the literature written in it, and after sitting in on a linguistics course at Harvard, she decided she wanted to pursue historical linguistics. "I wanted to go back as far as I could and figure out what changes a language had undergone over the centuries." Going back as far as she can in the Germanic languages, she is especially interested in the period from around the time of Christ to the end of the Old English period (around 1150 CE), and, true to her start as a music major, her focus is almost always sound-pronunciation.
Denton hopes her students learn to develop their problem-solving skills, their analytical abilities, and their ability to consider detail in her classes. She teaches undergraduate courses in history of the English language, phonetics and phonology, and special courses, like an American dialects course which she hopes will now be offered fairly regularly. Denton also teaches graduate-level courses in introductory linguistics and in Old English language and literature.
Through her teaching, Denton hopes to help students recognize their intuitive responses to language. "When you look at a language you've never seen before and you're presented with a problem, you have certain intuitions about how language works. Some of those are real intuitions because all humans have certain structures that they like in language and others they don't. But some intuitions are based on English, and most of the time we don't know or think about which ones are false" or may not apply to all languages. Denton notes that this is "true about anything in the world. You have intuitions about things, you have false preconceptions, and the trick is to trust certain intuitions while at the same time being very cautious about it." Such a skill can't be neatly packaged and labeled, but it's an important one to develop, no matter how a student might employ it in life after graduation.